By Amanda Menas
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on a specific aspect of the digital divide known as the homework gap—the inability to do schoolwork at home due to lack of high-speed internet access. Nationwide, 15-16 million students are affected—roughly 1 in 3. A disproportionate share of those students are African-American or Hispanic, come from low-income households, or live in rural areas.
Congress has taken steps to aid students and educators during the pandemic, but NEA members are dismayed that Congress has refused to provide adequate direct funding for WiFi hotspots, connection devices, and mobile wireless service through the existing and successful E-rate program to help our students most in need.
President Trump has promised to improve American infrastructure, including access to broadband, since his earliest days in office, but has failed to deliver. Educators called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration to provide at least $175 billion in education stabilization funds. In addition, NEA calls on lawmakers to include at least $4 billion to schools to ensure all students have internet access from home for the 2020-2021 school year. Due to the severity of the issue, NEA is calling on lawmakers to support at least this level of funding.
Where the Trump administration and Senate leadership have failed, Joe Biden is prepared to step in and deliver a solution to the most immediate issues around the homework gap, and the underlying infrastructure issues that have perpetuated the digital divide. Here are three key pieces of Biden’s approach:
During the pandemic, educators in high-poverty schools report lower class attendance, and believe that closing the homework gap aspect of the digital divide should be a top priority. Pew research shows that among families with school-age children, 25 percent of all Black households and 23 percent of Hispanic households lack high-speed internet, compared to only 10 percent of white households with school children.
Biden has called time and again for the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which would provide $915 billion for state and local governments. This funding would preserve school programs, educator jobs, and cushion local governments facing budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic. After Senate Republicans put their plan, Biden said, “What they are putting forward for schools and districts is much less than what’s needed.”
He plans to expand assistance to federal child care centers and K-12 schools, particularly Title I schools. Biden’s proposal will help ease “cost issues for parents seeking childcare and for schools and educators seeking to continue teaching remotely,” says Biden. He knows that every student and educator must have access to high-speed internet, during the pandemic and beyond. “Universal broadband is long overdue and critical to broadly shared economic success, he says.
As a U.S. Senator and Vice President, Joe Biden saw how our nation’s infrastructure is literally crumbling. Public schools have repeatedly earned a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Biden says, “Too many low-income communities are bearing the brunt of our nation’s decaying infrastructure,” and promises to invest federal funding in those neighborhoods so they have access to high-speed broadband, safe schools, and affordable housing.
3. He will bring broadband to every American household
Biden says, without broadband “students face substantial barriers to doing their homework and the sick and elderly can’t access remote health care,” both essential parts of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden’s plan acknowledges that the digital divide is “particularly wide” among low-income, older, rural Americans, and Indigenous people, and invests $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure. Biden has pledged to work with Congress and the FCC to connect more low-income Americans by passing the Digital Equity Act, and triple Community Connect broadband grants to bring cutting-edge broadband connections to communities across rural America. At a time when accessing education and many jobs rely on high-speed internet access, Biden says it should be a “great equalizer,” rather than another economic disadvantage, particularly for communities of color.